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Wednesday, 25 February 2009
Page: 1727

Mr DREYFUS (9:04 AM) —On behalf of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs I present the committee’s report entitled Whistleblower protection: a comprehensive scheme for the Commonwealth public sector, together with the minutes of proceedings and evidence received by the committee.

Ordered that the report be made a parliamentary paper.

Mr DREYFUS —by leave—It is my pleasure to present the report Whistleblower protection: a comprehensive scheme for the Commonwealth public sector, which is the second report of the legal and constitutional affairs committee for this parliament.

Blowing the whistle, or speaking out against suspected wrongdoing in the workplace, can be a very risky course of action. Outcomes can fall far short of expectations. Whistleblowers may risk subtle or more obvious forms of workplace discrimination or harassment. In the Commonwealth public sector, whistleblowers can be exposed to serious civil or criminal liability if they report misconduct through the wrong channels. On balance, these risks provide a significant disincentive for people to question and disclose wrongdoing and malpractice in their workplace.

Despite Australia’s high standards of public administration, improper conduct and maladministration does occur from time to time. Major recent examples would include the Australian Wheat Board, the outbreak of equine influenza and the wrongful deportation and detention of Australian citizens.

The Commonwealth is the only Australian jurisdiction without dedicated legislation to facilitate the making of public interest disclosures and protect those who make them. Existing Commonwealth law only protects limited categories of public servants, provides only a limited range of protections and insufficient oversight of the system. That is why the Attorney-General asked the committee to consider and report on a preferred model for legislation to protect public interest disclosures, or whistleblowing, within the Australian government public sector.

In conducting the inquiry, the committee received a wide range of evidence from academics, lawyers, leaders within the Australian Public Service and whistleblowers themselves. The report reflects the committee’s unanimous view that the Australian government should introduce a public interest disclosure bill to the parliament as a matter of priority. The purpose of the legislation should be to promote accountability and integrity in public administration. We heard from many submitters and witnesses that legislation should contain four main features: comprehensive coverage; clear guidance for participants; flexibility; and should recognise workplace culture issues.

The committee recommends that those able to make protected disclosures should be broadened to include current and former Commonwealth employees including employees of agencies under the Commonwealth Authorities and Companies Act 1997, contractors, consultants and their employees, persons overseas and parliamentary staff. Statutory protection available should include protection against detrimental action in the workplace and immunity from criminal and civil liability.

The system recommended by the committee comprises a two-stage process of internal and external disclosure with the Commonwealth Ombudsman overseeing the administration of the proposed Public Interest Disclosure Act. New obligations have been recommended to ensure that agencies act on the disclosures they receive. The committee has also recommended that, in certain circumstances, disclosures made to third parties such as the media, legal advisers, professional associations and members of parliament, should be protected.

I would like to acknowledge the contribution of all those who shared their time, expertise and experience with the committee during the inquiry. In particular, I would like to thank Dr AJ Brown and the Whistle While They Work project team; members of Whistleblowers Australia who enthusiastically contributed to the inquiry; key public sector leaders, the Australian Public Service Commissioner, Ms Lynelle Briggs, and the Commonwealth Ombudsman, Professor John McMillan. Finally, I would like to thank other members of the committee and the secretariat—Dr Anna Dacre, Mr Mark Rodrigues, Mr Michael Buss, Ms Melita Caulfield and Ms Claire Young—who worked on this important inquiry.